After our wonderful visit to the Sun Bear Conservation Center (SBCC), we were more excited than ever to discover more of Borneo’s fantastic wildlife. Nearly 200 mammal species live on the island! We partnered with kimkim, a curated travel experience marketplace organized by local certified travel specialists. We were connected with the Borneo specialist and expressed our desire to see more orangutans and cruise on the Kinabatangan River. We had only planned to be in Sandakan for a few days and had booked non-refundable airfare tickets so we gave them the challenge of figuring out how we could explore Borneo’s vast animal kingdom in a day trip.
I am always hesitant to work with travel planning companies as I am very particular in my itinerary building methods. Surprisingly, I was completely satisfied with the service I received from kimkim. Our experience was complimentary but kimkim operates transparently with direct prices, no expensive overhead, and a flat 10% commission on bookings. We told them how important it was for us to commission a responsible tour operator and were thrilled that they connected us with Sticky Rice Travel. Kimkim customized our day tour to our exact needs and criteria.
Sticky Rice Travel is a responsible travel agency in Malaysian Borneo that curates meaningful travel experiences visiting local ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Sticky Rice Travel abides by a strict low-impact policy and is dedicated to environmental conservation in Borneo. They’re also socially sustainable and collaborates exclusively with local Bornean guides and mindful operators to preserve unique local cultures. Combing tourism and conservation is the core of Miss Filatelista and we always strive to partner with organizations that share our commitment to socially conscious travel. Sticky Rice offers meaningful adventures that are off-the-beaten-path and support community-based tourism.
Our first stop of our day trip discovering Borneo’s wildlife was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Center (SORC) which is the oldest and largest organization providing care for the critically endangered species. We arrived for the morning mealtime for the primates, but none of the orangutans came to the feeding platform. Rather than disappointed, we were thrilled. It was the fruiting season meaning that the monkeys can and should find their own food in the virgin forest. This is a testament to the fantastic work the center is doing at rehabilitating orphaned and previously captive orangutans and preparing them to be released into the wild.
We had actually seen a few of Sepilok’s orange furry inhabitants the day before as they had crashed the party over at the SBCC. We did see several other species of wild monkeys while we were there including long tail macaque, pigtail macaque, and hybrid macaque. There was one sneaky monkey who saw an opportunity with all the uneaten fruit on the feeding platform and helped himself to a feast much to our delight.
Jeffrey, our Sticky Rice Travel guide fed our minds with a wealth of knowledge about orangutans. He told us how the primates build a new nest in a new location every single day, usually around 30 meters up in a tree. SORC is an open 4,300-hectare forest reserve where the animals move freely, hence why we saw them next door at SBCC. The grounds are a completely virgin forest which is the natural habitat for orangutans and boats over 200 trees, some of which are 94 meters tall! While we were in awe and admiration of the dedicated work of both animal rehabilitation centers in Sepilok we share a similar perspective with Jeffrey who stated that, “We shouldn’t need rehab for wild animals but we don’t live in an ideal world.”
We left Sepilok and started off on a long scenic drive through the dense countryside of Sabah en route to the Kinabatangan River. We were amazed by the lush greenery that we passed, it seemed that trees grew on trees and leaves grew on leaves. Once we arrived at the jetty we boarded a wooden boat and took a short cruise on the Kinabatangan River to the eco-friendly Borneo Nature Lodge in Sukau village. It was one of the most beautiful ecolodges we’ve had the chance to visit with many sustainable programs such as a solar tower that doubles as a bird watching tower and mechanical bicycle pedals that can be spun in order to power the lodge! The weather had been a bit dreary with lots of rain and the ecolodge operates on stored solar power at night so they needed as much additional manually created energy as possible!
After a spin, we were treated to a buffet style lunch of local vegetarian specialties and fried bananas for dessert. We were meat to head out onto the Kinabatangan River around 4 PM to be able to watch wildlife at dusk and see the sunset over the water but mother nature had other plans and brought us a spectacular rainforest shower. The power of the storm was incredible and the heavy rain lasted a few hours. Right as the sun began to set the skies cleared and the rain became less torrential so we put on ponchos and headed back out into the wooden boat to see what the Kinabatangan River had in store for us.
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. When we finally started the river cruise it was already beginning to get dark and had started to rain again so, unfortunately, we don’t have an abundance of quality photos to share as our camera stopped working due to getting wet. We lingered along the river banks we got to witness many of the fantastic animals that live in the rich ecosystem. Jefferey has excellent eyes and ears and was able to help us spot an array of wildlife on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. We heard the call of a Rhino Hornbill but weren’t able to spot the bird. We did see a few Bornean King Fishers fly by in all their colorful glory, the Bornean bird is actually the largest of the King Fisher species.
Then, we came across a massive family of proboscis monkeys, an endemic species to Borneo. Jeffery told us that the monkeys eat a diet consisting mainly of only leaves, they don’t eat fruits or consume any sugar. He pointed out a group of males on their own about 40 meters up in the tree and told us that they are the bachelors and don’t sit with the families of mothers and babies lower down on the tree top.
As dusk turned to dark we approached a bit of the riverbed that’s covered in tall elephant grass. Almost immediately we saw the grass swaying and Jeffery told us that a pygmy elephant was causing the rustling. I almost burst into tears, elephants have always been my favorite animal and I was overjoyed that Julio was about to have his first encounter with a wild elephant! And not just any elephant but the incredibly endangered and rarely seen pygmy elephants. The gentle giants are actually the smallest elephants in the world. Sadly, it is believed there are only 1,500 left. We had almost given up that the elephant would come down to shore where we could view his glory after an hour of tracking the moving grass and floating back and forth along the shore. Suddenly we hear the roar of the elephant’s trunk and regained hope that soon we’d spot the majestic creature. After the sunset and the environment was pitch black without even a star in the sky the grass began to part and a family of five pygmy elephants came down to the shore to feast on the greenery. Stunned to be a mere few feet away from an animal that I admire so greatly I couldn’t hold back tears of gratitude for this transformative experience. Julio was astonished to see the way these wild animals moved, cared for their young, and spoke to each other by trumpeting their trunks. It was a memorable experience to have such a rare animal encounter and in such an ethical way.
Our day witnessing the best of Borneo’s wildlife came to an end as we sped back to the jetty in the dark. Occasionally two glowing beads would appear in our flashlight. These were the eyes of the crocodiles that lurk in the waters of the Kinabatangan River. The largest recorded was 21-feet long! A reptile like that could easily take over our little wooden boat so I was very satisfied that the few we approached were quite small, although vicious looking as they had their jaws open and bared their razor-sharp teeth.
We were absolutely amazed by the little time we got to spend discovering the wildlife along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. We hope to come back someday for an extended stay, the longer you stay the more likely it is that you could see a wild orangutan or even the Sumatran rhino which is rarely ever encountered. If you’re making your way to Kinabatangan River please consider booking experiences with ethically responsible tourism partners like Sticky Rice Travels and Borneo Nature Lodge. Also, don’t forget binoculars! We don’t own a pair and really regretted not investing in some prior to our cruise on the Kinabatangan River.
Thank you kimkim for an unforgettable adventure! All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links, please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.